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The Art of Unhappiness

Why are creative types skeptical of joy? Because somebody has to be


Time Magazine, Jan. 17, 2005

Many things make people think artists are weird--the odd hours, the nonconformity, the clove cigarettes. But
the weirdest may be this: artists' only job is to explore emotions, and yet they choose to focus on the ones
that feel lousy. Art today can give you anomie, no problem. Bittersweetness? You got it. Tristesse? What size
you want that in? But great art, as defined by those in the great-art-defining business, is almost never about
simple, unironic happiness.

This wasn't always so. The earliest forms of art, like painting and music, are those best suited for expressing
joy. But somewhere in the 19th century, more artists began seeing happiness as insipid, phony or, worst of
all, boring--in Tolstoy's words, "All happy families are alike." We went from Wordsworth's daffodils to
Baudelaire's flowers of evil. In the 20th century, classical music became more atonal, visual art more
unsettling. Artists who focused on making their audiences feel good, from Usher to Thomas Kinkade, were
labeled "pop."

Sure, there have been exceptions (say, Matisse's The Dance), but it would not be a stretch to say that for
the past century or so, serious art has been at war with happiness. In 1824, Beethoven completed the "Ode
to Joy." In 1962, novelist Anthony Burgess used it in A Clockwork Orange as the favorite piece of his
ultraviolent antihero. If someone titles an art movie Happiness, it is a good bet that it will be--as the 1998
Todd Solondz film was--about deeply unhappy people, including a telephone pervert and a pedophile.

You could argue that art became more skeptical of happiness because modern times have seen such
misery. But it's not as if earlier times didn't know perpetual war, disaster and the massacre of innocents. The
reason, in fact, may be just the opposite: there is too much damn happiness in the world today.

After all, what is the one modern form of expression almost completely dedicated to depicting happiness?
Advertising. The rise of anti-happy art almost exactly tracks the emergence of mass media, and with it, a
commercial culture in which happiness is not just an ideal but an ideology.

People in earlier eras were surrounded by reminders of misery. They worked gruelingly, lived with few
protections and died young. In the West, before mass communication and literacy, the most powerful mass
medium was the church, which reminded worshippers that their souls were in peril and that they would
someday be meat for worms. On top of all this, they did not exactly need their art to be a bummer too.

Today the messages your average Westerner is bombarded with are not religious but commercial, and
relentlessly happy. Fast-food eaters, news anchors, text messengers, all smiling, smiling, smiling, except for
that guy who keeps losing loans to Ditech. Our magazines feature beaming celebrities and happy families in
perfect homes. (Tolstoy clearly never edited a shelter mag.) And since these messages have an agenda--to
pry our wallets from our pockets--they make the very idea of happiness seem bogus. "Celebrate!"
commanded the ads for the arthritis drug Celebrex, before we found out it could increase the risk of heart

It gets exhausting, this constant goad to joy. If you're not smiling--after we made all those wonderful pills and
cell-phone plans!--what's wrong with you? Not to smile is un-American. You can pick out the Americans in a
crowd of tourists by their reflexive grins. The U.S. enshrined in its founding document the right to the pursuit
of happiness. So we pursued it and--at least as commerce defines it--we caught it.

Now, like the dog that chased and finally caught the car, we don't know what the hell to do with it. We feel
vaguely dissatisfied though we have what we should want, vaguely guilty for wanting it, vaguely angry
because it didn't come as advertised. People tsk-tsked over last month's study in which women reported
being happier having sex or watching TV than playing with their kids. But why shouldn't they? This is how
the market defines happiness. Happiness is feeling good. Kids, those who exist outside ads, make you feel
bad--exhausted, frustrated, bored and poor. Then they move away and break your heart.

What we forget--what our economy depends on us forgetting--is that happiness is more than pleasure sans
pain. The things that bring the greatest joy carry the greatest potential for loss and disappointment. Today,
surrounded by promises of easy happiness, we need someone to tell us that it is O.K. not to be happy, that
sadness makes happiness deeper. As the wine-connoisseur movie Sideways tells us, it is the kiss of decay
and mortality that makes grape juice into Pinot Noir. We need art to tell us, as religion once did, Memento
mori: remember that you will die, that everything ends, and that happiness comes not in denying this but in
living with it. It's a message even more bitter than a clove cigarette, yet, somehow, a breath of fresh air.